‘Can I communicate using only Japanese in Hawaii?’

Language and transnationality as seen through the online discourse on Japanese tourism in Hawaii

Gianmarco Fiorentini, Ca’Foscari University of Venice [About | Email]

Volume 22, Issue 1 (Article 4 in 2022). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2022.


Japan is the first tourist partner for the State of Hawaii. Japan’s discourse on Hawaii has been evolving since early Meiji and continues to this day with the place being advertised as a tropical paradise. Despite the representations, the presence of nikkei on the islands has been documented since the first migrations started which contributed to the presence of the Japanese language today. This article examines the relationship between Japanese language use and touristic mobility between Japan and Hawaii. It explores how the linguistic and cultural Japanese heritage in Hawaii is considered an essential aspect of a Japanese traveller’s journey to the islands. It is argued that heritage is capable of influencing the choice that Japanese visitors take in choosing Hawaii for their international travel. Critical discourse analysis is used to bring new perspectives on the role that language plays in influencing human mobility in the region.

Keywords: Hawaii, Japanese language, tourism, advertising, international travel, online discourse


Hawaii is an immensely popular destination among Japanese tourists. The Aloha State has been the destination for Japanese travels for more than a century and discourse around it eventually turned the archipelago into a real paradise to eyes of the Japanese audience (Yaguchi and Yoshihara 2004). The history of the Japanese American community of Hawaii has received sizable scholarly attention, highlighting how it has been successful in nurturing its heritage which today is made manifest in many forms. This community is regarded as one of the nikkei groups in the Americas that managed to maintain the strongest transnational connections with its country of origin (Manzenreiter 2017).
Japanese leisure travels to Hawaii have been backed by economic investments on the islands which happen against the backdrop of larger Japanese real estate investments in the U.S. (Hara & Eyster 1990). Likewise, Hawaii has been putting effort into accommodating the needs of Japanese tourists. These efforts include linguistic support, which is facilitated by the numerous native speakers of Japanese available for employment on the islands. Since the dawn of Japanese tourism to Hawaii, special infrastructures were built to accommodate Japanese traditional bathing and lodging habits. These operations accelerated after the liberalisation of international travels in the sixties, when it became evident that a Japanese tourist boom was starting (Wolbrink 1964). Today, Japan is the first international partner for the State of Hawaii (United States of America 2020), hinting at significant transnational connections.
This paper argues that there are linguistic and cultural factors playing a role behind the decision that many Japanese tourists take in choosing Hawaii for their travels. This work applies critical discourse analysis to digital spaces where discourse on Hawaii is produced, reproduced, and consumed in Japan. In doing so, it highlights how Japanese language use in Hawaii represents a source of debate and preoccupation among travellers, giving an insight into the role that language plays on mobility across the Pacific while exploring a discourse that is rooted in both essentialism and consumerism.

Developing an approach to multimodal critical discourse analysis

The rationale for choosing discourse analysis as a tool for a critical analysis of discourse is the perception of an existing social problem or phenomenon and the need to investigate the relationship between discourse and the wider social and cultural contexts (Fairclough 1993, 2001), in this case, to analyse debates and preoccupations on language use as presented by Japanese people who are considering Hawaii for travel. Choosing critical discourse analysis as a framework for the investigation means to take on this research theme without being limited to the sole analysis of language itself. Critical discourse analysis does not stop at the analysis of structures within texts and conversations. It considers the connection between the textual resources at hand and the wider sociocultural context. The link between language and context is important because discourse is not produced in a social vacuum. The sociocultural context contains internalised expectations, representations of social forces, and historical facts, and they all emerge through language. According to Fairclough (2010), CDA is a tool that leverages the property of language to connect with ideology by being a site for struggles for power. CDA is deployed against the backdrop of a specific historical context as a means to reveal hidden assumptions and naturalised historical accounts. This is done by emphasising the language used in their elaboration (Flowerdew 2012). Thus, the language in the texts used for CDA is considered in its social context as a force that is both shaping and informed by wider societal processes.
CDA as a methodology has been deployed in numerous scenarios around the world. As for Japanese studies, it has been successfully used to bridge corpus-based linguistic studies with non-linguistic types of analyses on a variety of subjects. Newspapers are a popular source of data for discourse analysis both in Japan and abroad (Saft and Ohara 2006, Tanaka 2016), but other types of media too have been studied through the lens of CDA such as Internet pages (Gyenes 2019). In cases like these CDA is useful to show the contrast between what is being said (or written) and what is being done about a specific matter. CDA eventually enables the showing of discrepancies between the two, highlighting power asymmetries, manipulations, exploitations, and structural inequities as seen through a variety of media (Blommaert and Bulcaen 2000).
In order to understand the importance that Japanese language use in Hawaii (among other factors) has from a Japanese visitor’s perspective, this study employs the ‘significance building tool’ for critical discourse analysis. With this tool, Gee (2011) invites researchers to “ask how words and grammatical devices are being use to build up or lessen significance (importance, relevance) for certain things and not others.”
The focus is on finding not just information as is, but also in what ways certain elements within discourse are made more or less significant. Doing so highlights how certain factors may play a more significant role than others.
Since this study assembles its corpus starting from online resources, the role of multimodality is taken into consideration. As the complex interweaving of words, images, gestures, and movements including speech, multimodality combines these components of communication in different ways and through a varied range of media (Bearne and Wolstencroft 2007). The resulting multimodality mediates the sociocultural ways in which images and written words are combined and mutually reinforced in the communication process (Kress & Van Leeuwen 2001). Internet Web sites and digital spaces in general are characterised by multimodality. Taking into consideration how various components are assembled on a given Webpage is helpful to understand how a certain subject is treated, highlighting how certain multimodal choices have a role in the communicative process by reinforcing and shaping it. Images, videos, fonts, etc., are all related to the message of the text, and contribute to the creation of an environment considered suitable to contain said text. Thus, this study will consider the relationship between the graphic elements within advertisement and online resources and the written content analysed as part of a whole semiotic package.
This study presents sentences considered relevant for the analysis extrapolated from top-hit Web sites and advertisement. The content is then analysed within its context and modality to address the following research questions:

1) What is the social context that has led to the production of content?
2) Who produced the content and for who?
3) Does the narrative build or lessen significance on the role that language and culture have in traveling to Hawaii?

The questions have been designed in accordance to Fairclough’s CDA model to cover the three levels of social context, text production and text (Fairclough 2010). The table below shows how question (3) is concerned with the text and employs Gee’s significance building tool for CDA. The other questions gradually move away from the micro-level of the text to explore its role in the wider narrative.

Figure 1. Fairclough’s (1993) three-dimensional CDA framework in relation to this study.

Building an online corpus

The first step is to build a corpus on the matter of Japanese travel to Hawaii. To do so, it is necessary to determine the Japanese language terminology most commonly associated with this matter. Apart from general terms, certain choices also reflect the need to focus on content that links travels to Japanese language use and heritage. In Japanese, Hawaii is written with the katakana alphabet which is usually reserved for words of foreign origin, and is known as ハワイ(hawai). This is the most common term even if there is also a version of the name written with Chinese characters (kanji), but is more formal and rarely used. The Japanese language is generally known as 日本語 (Nihongo) while culture is 文化 (bunka). A word commonly used to inquire about language use abroad is 通じる (tsūjiru) a verb related to communication that indicates the ability to communicate, to speak, or generally to get by in a given language. An expression typically used to describe the first international travel is 初めての海外旅行 (hajimete no kaigai ryokō), which can be broken down into 初めて (hajimete) the first time, 海外 (kaigai) overseas and the noun 旅行 (ryokō) meaning travel. They can be associated with the terms おすすめ (osusume) meaning recommendation, suggestion, or advice. Hotels are called ホテル (hoteru), a word that indicates the distinction between western-style accommodations as opposed to the traditional Japanese structures known as 旅館 (ryokan).
This terminology is then used to search content within Japanese pages (Web sites with a .jp domain). The table below shows Web searches using combinations of the terms described above and their associated number of results. This early exploration shows how these search terms appear in numerous Websites.

Figure 2. Japanese Web search terms related to Hawaii and number of results.

Inputting certain terms can prompt the auto-completion function of the search engine which suggests to the user a series of subsequent words based on research trends. This may have further implications related to research trends. For example, simply inputting the term for Hawaii and Japanese language makes the engine suggest communicate with (通じる), hotel (ホテル) and, curiously, なぜ (naze). This last word means "why?" and may hint at the fact that many people assume that the Japanese language is widely spoken in Hawaii and turn to Internet queries to know the reasons why. Likewise, the term for Japan is recommended when inputting the words for Hawaii and culture. The Web pages presented by this search talk about the Japanese influence on Hawaiian society, thus hinting at the fact that sufficient queries are being made on this subject to make it a trend.

What is the social context that has led to the production of content?

In their thoughtful summary, Yaguchi and Yoshihara (2004) point out that Japan’s fascination with Hawaii started more than a hundred years ago. During the early years of the Meiji period (1868-1912) thousands of people emigrated to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane industry. Officially, Japanese migration to Hawaii started at the end of the Edo period (also known as Tokugawa 1603-1868) after one hundred forty-eight individuals were recruited from old Edo (now Tokyo) and Yokohama to carry out plantation work. At the end of their contract, despite the harsh conditions many decided to stay and eventually settled on the islands permanently. Immigration continued after Hawaii and the Japanese empire entered further negotiations to summon more workers to the islands. This time, migrants arrived from more prefectures like Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Kanagawa, Okayama, Wakayama, Mie, Shizuoka, Shiga, and Miyagi (Kimura 1988). At the turn of the century when Hawaii became a United States territory, Japanese immigration to the islands rose exponentially along with those who were choosing to settle on the American West Coast to find more diverse employment opportunities. The arrival of people from Japan in high numbers resulted in an increasing anti-Japanese agitation which led to diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Immigration from Japan was restricted for about twenty years with the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 between U.S. and Japan (Cullinane 2014). However, in order to put a complete end to it, American lawmakers passed the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 which forbade the Japanese from entering the United States, exacerbating racial and societal tensions (Izumi 2001). After migration stopped, several distinct generations formed and communities consolidated. Their social structure was tested during the rough years of the Pacific War, which saw the groups experience severe difficulties such as racism and internment. With the end of the empire and Hawaii officially becoming a U.S. State, immigration could finally recommence only in 1965 when the Immigration Act of that year ended the long ban against migration from Japan and other countries.
Japanese migration to Hawaii happened in waves which influenced the discourse around the Japanese in the United States. At first they were considered skilled workers. However, as anti-Japanese sentiment grew all over North America, the presence of Japanese nationals and their descendants turned into a potential menace especially during WWII, only for things to improve at the end of the conflict (Ng 2001). Japan too negotiated its own discourse on Hawaii and the U.S. in general. At first, Hawaii represented the chance to escape the poverty of rural Japan and earn money by working in plantations. A painting from that time, ‘Japanese Labourers on Spreckelsville Plantation, Maui’ (Strong ca. 1885, see Figure 3), focuses on a Japanese worker standing fiercely next to his family in the middle of a plantation. In the background, the dramatic Hawaiian scenery awaits to be tamed by the man, his family, and fellow workers. Images like these represent how Hawaii was seen as a place filled with both dangers and opportunities. Many considered Hawaii a temporary solution before acquiring enough wealth to return to Japan and live comfortably. At the same time, the Japanese were a source of labour for Hawaiian authorities.

Figure 3. ‘Japanese Labourers on Spreckelsville Plantation, Maui’ (Strong ca. 1885)
As Yaguchi and Yoshihara (2004) demonstrated, by the twenties media started to portray Hawaii more prominently in Japan. It was being presented in a romanticised and idealised way to the Japanese audience. As a result, the hardships that characterised the everyday life of Japanese migrants were downplayed. The strikes that were occurring during those years due to the poor working conditions of Japanese migrants in the agricultural sector (Kimura 1988) were incompatible with the discourse on paradise that was starting to be pursued at the time. Furthermore, migrants faced an anti-Japanese sentiment which fuelled the concept of the Japanese menace taking over the islands from the United States. Discourse regarding Hawaii selectively tended to ignore matters like these to focus more on the far exotic wild land where it was possible to earn a living (Yaguchi and Yoshihara 2004). Despite the growing popularity as a destination for work, the events of WWII eventually made it impossible to separate Hawaii from the reality of Japan-U.S. relations. In Japan, a series of strict censorship policies were put into action aimed at suppressing admiration for Hawaii and consumption of goods associated with its culture. The propaganda posters of the time pushed the image of plantations and their workers aside to show the might of the empire as expressed through planes, warships, and explosions. Hawaii and the attack on Pearl Harbour became part of the anti-American propaganda carried out during those years.
Despite the censorship efforts of the empire during the Pacific War years, at the end of the conflict popularity for Hawaii once again exploded and steadily increased, supported by the political and economical conditions of the following decades. In particular, the liberalisation of international travel which occurred in 1964 effectively marked the beginning of a new era. After the American occupation, Japanese were finally free to travel, and the economic conditions of that time allowed more and more people to do so (Yaguchi and Yoshihara 2004). The fifties and sixties were a time during which the Japanese were starting to be exposed to an increasing amount of American culture through movies, literature, and music. The widespread diffusion of media and the increasing accessibility of international travel all facilitated the commodification of Hawaii as a product. As in a postmodern paradox, the systematic ways in which media portray a place often become indistinguishable from reality itself (Baudrillard 1988). The success that movies about Hawaii (produced both in Japan and the U.S.) had during those times presented images sophisticated enough so that a new autonomous discourse, which could be called “longing for Hawaii” (Akogare no Hawai) (Yaguchi 2011) could start to slowly replace the older one. Some popular movies of the time featured many Americanised Japanese residents. They were shown as accomplished members of society, owning businesses and indulging in leisure activities, all of this happening against the backdrop of the vibrant Hawaiian scenery which started to be shown in colour in the early sixties. Although cinematic technology of the time was capable of producing vivid images and sounds, cinematic products remained open to interpretation and were manufactured primarily for entertainment purposes. The majority of the characters portrayed in media exhibited no sign of the suffering and discrimination that had characterised the Japanese American experience during the war (Yaguchi 2004). That period already seemed far away, as the characters portrayed were shown as relaxed, sporting casual and colourful clothes, and blending perfectly within Hawaiian society. The environment in which they interacted was as vibrant and welcoming as it could be. Nature too was a fundamental component of the aesthetic that was being pursued. Lush greenery, aerial shots of valleys, and white beaches with pristine waters often served as the background for scenes. Local culture with its repertoire of music and dances was a source of wonder, contributing to the exotic feel of the place. Hawaii is a place of striking natural beauty with rich local culture and history but it has been observed that these elements may have been portrayed in an orientalist fashion (Saïd 1978). For examples, not all productions were shot on location, with the result that many movies showed footage not shot in Hawaii but rather in sets built to look and feel Hawaiian. The idea that Hawaii could be a perfect destination to spend a holiday every year gradually emerged. Furthermore, Yaguchi (2014) advanced the hypothesis that Hawaii started to be featured as the lens through which the Japanese could imagine themselves under the hegemony of the United States. The photographs from the popular book series featured in his study show successful Japanese Americans enjoying a desirable lifestyle in Hawaii by being part of the larger American society. Images ranged from tidy workplaces, to images of consumption and social infrastructures, all serving stories of opportunities with Japanese Americans as the protagonists. The idea was that work in Hawaii was modern, clean, efficient, and accompanied by a good remuneration enabling the Japanese Americans to enjoy remarkable material comfort. Hawaii was the place were Japanese Americans retained their cultural traditions while enjoying economic prosperity. The Japanese longing for Hawaii had all the support it needed further to develop in the following decades.
Needless to say that during the eighties and nineties the economic boom of Japan and the subsequent appreciation of the Yen further boosted Hawaii’s popularity, leading to today’s situation in which the number of Japanese visitors are second only to Americans coming form the mainland (United States of America 2020). Nowadays, Hawaii is an immensely popular tourist destination for Japanese travellers. Advertising boards featuring tropical Hawaiian scenery are a common sight in travel agencies and public spaces in Japan. The islands are advertised as a top-tier destination for leisure travel, capable of evoking a sense of exoticism like few destinations can do. The Japanese audience is familiar with the classic, albeit often stereotyped, images commonly associated with Hawaii. Beaches, palm trees, and the hibiscus flowers are some of the most common examples. The digital spaces within which this discourse is being produced every day are heterogeneous in nature. There are in fact blogs, magazines, specialised Web sites, business pages, and a variety of social networks. Regardless of the form, these spaces allow people to connect, to be part of, and negotiate the discourse around Hawaii like never before.
The fact that Japanese tourism to Hawaii exponentially increased during the last forty years, to the point that millions of Japanese visit Hawaii every year, hints at solid ties between the two countries. According to reports released by the Hawaii Tourist Authority (United States of America 2020), likewise, Japan is the first international touristic partner for the Aloha State, a role that Hawaii too acknowledges. The State recognises Japan as one of its ‘Major Market Areas’ (MMA), a term that indicates a geographic zone containing people who are likely to visit Hawaii. For context, the other MMAs are U.S. West, U.S. East, Canada, and the conglomerates Other Asia and Oceania. It is reported that Japanese visitors spend, on average, more than any other profile. The Japanese economy, one of the strongest in the Asia-Pacific region, is capable of generating enough wealth so that leisure travel to Hawaii is made possible for the highest number of people yet. South Korea and China could do this too among other countries in the region. And yet, Japanese represent the highest number of visitors every year. More than geographical proximity, such intense mobility hints at decisive factors that are playing a role in the decision-making process of people which are both cultural and linguistic in nature.

The cultural and linguistic heritage of the Japanese in Hawaii is clearly present on the islands as demonstrated by the number of speakers.

Figure 4. Highlights for language spoken at home State of Hawaii, 2009 to 2013. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2015)

Japanese ranks third behind Tagalog and Ilocano as a language spoken at home other than English for the State of Hawaii. Among these Japanese speakers, about half of them declare to speak English ‘less than very well’. If we consider the inability to speak English (the dominant language of Hawaii) fluently as a characteristic of foreign-born individuals, then it is also possible to hypothesise a certain degree of international mobility, presumably from Japan, of people who speak Japanese as their first language. In this regards, Miyares (2008) observed that a considerable number of Japanese businessmen moved to Hawaii to establish transnational households and businesses, thus creating a new Japanese middle class separate from that of the Japanese who arrived in the past. Profiles like these are more likely to use Japanese instead of English at home, making Japanese the dominant language in many households. This can potentially lay the foundation for new intergenerational transmission of Japanese in a place where another language is dominant, further contributing to its presence and availability in Hawaii.
Given the high number of speakers, Hawaii often manages to live up to the tourists’ expectations, enabling them to encounter their own language despite being so far from home. Language is part of a wider set of expectations when it comes to traveling to Hawaii. The digital spaces within which matters like these are being discussed every day are heterogeneous in nature. As we mentioned above, there are in fact blogs, magazines, specialised Web sites, business pages, and a variety of social networks. Regardless of the form, these spaces allow people to connect, to be part of, and negotiate the discourse around Hawaii like never before.

Who produces the content and for whom?

Interactions occur through social media platforms. Some of these are popular both in Japan and abroad. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube are common examples, while other Websites are more closely associated with the Japanese audience such as Ameba, Hatena, and Livedoor. Blogging is a popular way to create content on the Internet, especially in Japan where there are millions of users creating content every day. The freedom to create a digital space where it is possible to construct the desired identity makes of digital spaces like blogs a desirable environment for the critical and multimodal analysis of discourse within an Internet-mediated context (Xie, Yus, and Haberland 2021). The texts that can be found across such diverse spaces are part of the same discourse. However, the creators and their texts belong to different categories. After all, as Gee (2014) states, even those who are unaware of the history behind a discourse can be familiar with it and participate in its negotiation. As for Japan, the discourse around Hawaii is rooted in a century-old essentialist repertoire that has found its way to contemporaneity. The Japanese heritage in Hawaii as well as the idea of Hawaii as a tropical resort where it is possible to speak Japanese freely, are both subjects of intense telematic debates even among those who have never gone to Hawaii in the first place. 
Users online negotiate the discourse around Japanese language use in Hawaii in an interactive fashion. People who have gone to Hawaii share their experiences and opinions with those who haven’t. Social networks are a suitable channel for this. These Web sites allow users to create a public or semi-public profile, write messages, and share content with one another, both on a personal and community level (Boyd & Ellison 2008). This system allows a certain degree of freedom, albeit within a bounded system, to the people who are considering a vacation to Hawaii and want to ask specific questions that people they know in real life could not answer. 
In the digital space discourse can be expressed through user-generated content. It can include texts, images, videos, etc. On certain platforms such diverse content is indexed and categorised through the use of hashtags, a type of metadata tag prefaced by the symbol #. Hashtags too are user-generated, meaning that people can freely associate the tag they prefer to their content. There are some obvious hashtags like ハワイ旅行 (Hawai ryokō) and ハワイ生活 (Hawai seikatsu) meaning Hawaiian lifestyle. However, there also the trending tags ハワイ行きたい (Hawai ikitai) meaning I want to go to Hawaii, and the tag ハワイ好きな人と繋がりたい (Hawai sukina hito to tsunagaritai) meaning I want to connect with people who love Hawaii, thus, hinting at at type of environment that favours content for and by those who have visited or wish to visit Hawaii and who view the islands positively. The language used in this environment tends to be informal. A frequent use of emoji has been observed which are being embedded in texts to fill in emotional clues. Being a set of easily identifiable expression symbols, their use is especially suited for social media where posts are often limited to a single line of text. Examples of emojis commonly produced within posts related Hawaii are the hibiscus flower and the palm tree. Most contemporary digital Japanese keyboards that features hiragana and katakana even suggest these emojis to the user along with other symbols related to sea life and beaches when inputting the word for Hawaii. The usage of informal language (as in being written in plain form) continues when observing physical and nonphysical digital advertisement as well. However, these kind of texts are not user-generated but are crafted by stakeholders for commercial reasons. The difference implies a change in the direction that the communicative event takes. On the one hand, social media content tends to be used to share travel experiences, tips, and impressions on the place that are subjective in nature. On the other hand, the goal of advertisement is to sell the product Hawaii. There are of course exceptions to this, such as blogs and social media posts that function as promotional venues for goods and services associated with Hawaiian travels. Regardless, considerable professional efforts are being made to promote and establish commercial connections between Japan and Hawaii. These efforts often make use of the images and themes seen above. For example, ANA (All Nippon Airways), Japan’s largest airline, even debuted one of the world’s biggest passenger planes, a superjumbo A380 designed after a sea turtle. The livery was chosen for its image as both an iconic animal of Hawaii and family-friendly mascot. The turtle-inspired aircraft is used for the Tōkyō (Narita)-Honolulu route and more Hawaiian inspired models are on the way, each named to represent a natural aspect of Hawaii: the sky (空 sora), the sea (海 umi) and sunsets (夕陽 yūhi) (ANA 2022).
People turn to the Internet to learn about the many aspects of a Hawaiian travel. A major preoccupation appears to be language use. Usually, when traveling abroad one does not expect to be able to find one’s language naturally spoken and widely available on site. There are, of course, exceptions to this. But in the case of the United States of America, it could be seen as rather unrealistic to expect to be able to communicate exclusively in Japanese. However, opinions online seem to agree, at least on the surface level, on the fact that it is indeed possible in Hawaii. Regardless of the reality of things, this idea leads to the creation of a plethora of content that mirrors this trend. Thus, queries on this matter both reinforce and challenge this common perception.
The linguistic curiosity on Hawaii is in fact a trend that is readily intercepted by many Websites. Blog posts, forums, and social media offer a higher degree of freedom in the interactive negotiation of discourse. Yet, they are not the only ways in which discourse on Hawaii is produced, reproduced, and consumed on the Internet. This freedom is juxtaposed to ‘read-only’ Web sites. CDA is concerned with individuals and institutions producing seemingly ‘anonymous’ utterances as they are a genre in itself whose texts, voice and authorship remain vague or to be attributed to a compound author (Gee 2014).
The efforts that small and large companies make to advertise Hawaii to Japanese travellers find an already existing fascination among the general public that makes advertisement easier compared to other destinations. Although the Japanese audience is generally aware of the existence of historic ties between the two countries, these remain on a surface level and as a result it is not a subject that stakeholders focus on when it comes to advertisement. Instead, Hawaii is considered a Japanese-friendly and happy destination for families. The phrasing used in ads reveals that professional advertisement seems to focus on this aspect of friendliness. Each ad generally follows a theme, often being about family (家族 kazoku), intersecting with hashtags like 子連れハワイ (kozure Hawai) meaning taking one’s child along to Hawaii. They are also about honeymoons (ハネムーン hanemūn), landscapes (景色 keshiki), and enjoyment in general (楽しむ tanoshimu). Hawaii is also being made appealing towards another specific demographic. Girls’ trips (女性旅 josei tabi) are a recurring theme in advertisement, and women’s magazines too feature articles about Hawaii where shopping and mundane activities are covered in detail. Regardless of the target demographic, the tendency is to encourage the movement of people during peak seasons which for Japan would be mainly Summer and Golden Week, a series of holidays closely spaced together observed around the end of April and the beginning of May. Advertisement acknowledges this by suggesting periods for visits and by trying to intercept paid leaves (有休 yūkyū). Japanese advertisement constructs discourse around Hawaii in a simplistic way that is convenient for consumerism. After all, it was the powerful purchasing power of the Yen during the years of the economic boom that contributed to the establishment of this idea in the first place. In turn, Hawaii quickly equipped itself with the tools to satisfy the materialist behaviours of Japanese visitors. As a result, there seems no need to acknowledge elements that diverge from those that make of Hawaii a tourist’s paradise. There is also no sign of the many complexities that characterise contemporary Hawaiian society. Yaguchi and Yoshihara (2004) argue that the capitalist discourse that constructs Hawaii as an object of and site of consumption dominates the mainstream contemporary imaginary of the islands in Japan. Thus, the islands are constructed as an escapist solution for those who are looking for a break from everyday Japanese life, a place where it is also possible to satisfy any materialist need.
Another thing that should be kept in mind is the fact that online advertisement is central to the tourism industry, especially since an increasing number of travellers are choosing online booking services for their travels (Kim et all 2007). Agencies and Websites that focus on travels are among those who produce texts that are meant to intersect with this trend. And so, the numerous pages that introduce the reader to rankings of Japanese-friendly destinations and hotels are presented in a way that is rarely meant to be challenged or negotiated.

Does the narrative build or lessen significance on the role that language and culture have in travelling to Hawaii?

Japanese discourse on Hawaii generally follows an essentialist trajectory. However, it has been observed that content generated on the Internet within informal contexts and by non-institutional subjects can touch different themes as well. Despite the key difference regarding the authorship of texts, both user-generated content and professional advertisement rely heavily on multimodality. Images of Waikiki Beach and the Honolulu skyscrapers overlooking the ocean are the most common visual elements, often enriched by flowers, palm trees and stock photos related to Hawaiian food and dances. When it comes to the texts, it should be noted that fonts too serve to convey different messages to the reader, even before phrasing itself. On the one hand, non-technical information is written with colourful fonts in playful shapes surrounded by vector graphics shaped like hearts, stars, or in general as the visual elements most commonly associated with a stereotypical tropical island. On the other hand, informations like schedules and terms of service are written with more traditional fonts. The visual elements most commonly associated with Hawaii are a constant presence online. Graphically, the vast majority of Websites make use of stereotyped pictures like the skyscrapers of Waikiki beach overlooking the sea, palm trees at sunset, Hawaiian costal mountains, and colourful flowers. The aesthetic is often enriched by matching fonts that turn the texts, especially titles and headlines, into elements that reinforce the message of exoticism and tropical wonder that the pictures are meant to evoke. This relationship between image and text is compatible with the function that Kress & Van Leeuwen (2001) attribute to multimodality, visual and written elements mutually reinforcing each other in the communicative process. Thus, it is clear how before any kind of content is actually consumed, users are invited to join an environment that pre-emptively sets the tone for them, selecting certain elements and ignoring others.
It has been observed that the texts that appear to be most reliant on this kind of digitally constructed spaces are the ones produced by agencies or specialised Web site such as travel portals. A popular genre is ranking. There are in fact numerous pages hosting top ten lists of destinations that are said to be more suitable for Japanese travellers. Hawaii is often ranked first or at least among the very best, presenting it as the ideal destination for Japanese tourists. The established popularity as a tropical resort among Japanese tourists is consistently acknowledged. Japanese language availability on the islands is presented as a major selling point. Below some examples of texts to show how these matters are addressed.

Hawaii is an overseas resort popular among Japanese. It’s also popular as first international trip. It’s safe, and although it’s an English speaking country, don’t worry because there are many Japanese tourists and a lot of local staff capable of communicating in Japanese.
(…) ウォールアートや本物のバンケーキなどのインスタ映えの景色やスイーツも楽しみたいですね♪ 日本語が通じる場所も多いので安心して観光ができます。[2]
(…) Wouldn’t want to enjoy wall art, delicious pancakes and landscapes worthy of Instagram? (music note) There also many places where you can communicate in Japanese so you can enjoy sightseeing with a peace of mind.
治安も良く、日本語も大抵のショップ・ホテル・レストランで通じると言うのも強みです。(…) 日本からそこまで連れていないハワイ、初めての海外旅行にピッタリのスポットです。[3]
When it comes to a tourist destination popular among the Japanese, Hawaii immediately comes to mind. It takes between six and eight hours to get there, depending on the airline. It’s safe and the fact that it’s generally possible to speak Japanese in shops, hotels and restaurants is a plus. (…) Hawaii is not that far from Japan and it makes for a perfect first time overseas trip.
Japanese is often spoken during optional tours, in malls and hotels popular among Japanese visitors. So even those who are unexperienced with overseas travels can enjoy a comfortable visit.
Even if you are not good at English, there are a lot of staff members who speak Japanese so that’s a relief, isn’t?

These are self-explanatory sentences that argue how Hawaii is a solid (pittari) destination for Japanese travellers, especially for those who do not have any previous travel experience. It is often stated how in Hawaii Japanese is spoken in various places and by a lot of local staff members. Consumerist behaviours such as shopping and sightseeing seem to be presented as appealing selling points, so it makes sense that Japanese visitors’ encounters with their own language within these contexts is highlighted. Japanese language use is often associated with the term relief (anshin). It can also be found further emphasised by the use of the sentence ending particles yo and ne, which are used to emphasise and seek confirmation. The role of English is downplayed significantly. It is stated that one can get by in Hawaii only in Japanese even without proper knowledge of English (eigo ga nigate), which may be troublesome for some.
As argued before, there are also other spaces where matters like these are discussed online. Exploring the content produced within more interactive spaces may help widen the spectrum of the analysis. Below are some examples taken from a forum where people can post questions, obtain answers and discuss.

Question: ハワイには日本語話せる人が多いでしょうか? [6]
Are there many people in Hawaii who can speak Japanese?
Answer A (most voted): 多いですよ。その昔、日本からの移民が多かったということもあります。(…) 観光客相手の日本語が話せる人…ということですと、限られてきますけど。アメリカ本土と比較すれば多いです。
A lot! In the past there were a lot of people who emigrated from Japan. (…) However people who can speak Japanese to customers are…limited. Still a lot if compared to America’s mainland.
Answer B: 基本は英語(米語)しか通じない。ただし、他の国/地域よりは日本語が通じる機会がある、という程度です。
Basically only English (American) is used. However, there are more opportunities to speak Japanese than in other countries/regions.
Answer D: 比較てき多いと言う感じです。
It feels like there are relatively many.
Answer E: 大勢いますよ。
Generally yes!

There is a key difference between these kind of interactive environments and the general content created by organisations. In this case, opinions seem to represent both sides of the spectrum. As a general tendency, it has been observed that users online tend to agree on the fact that Japanese is widely available to visitors. This opinion is often reinforced by particles such in a lot! (ooi desu yo). However, there were also utterances where the matter loses its yes/no dichotomy and shifts toward a grey area, like in relatively many (hikakuteki ooi). The idea that it is not possible to communicate in Japanese all the time is brought up as well, when some respondents state that basically only English is used (kihon ha eigo shika tsūjinai). Several users also comment on the fact that Japanese in Hawaii is indeed present, just not as dominant as one may think. Others recognise that it is at least more present in Hawaii than in other parts of the U.S. or other countries.
There are times when users frame this phenomenon within the wider historical context of Japanese migrations to Hawaii, recognising that the islands have had Japanese speakers for a long time. As a result, the presence of Japanese culture in Hawaii is object of attention as well. It has been observed that entire articles and blog posts have been produced on this matter. Some of these texts are presented below.

Title: どうして日本庭園が?ハワイに根付く日本文化  [7]
Why are there Japanese gardens in Hawaii? The Japanese culture rooted in Hawaii.
Japanese language, religion and customs are alive and well in Hawaii. There are many things that you can experience in Hawaii and not in Japan. But regardless, some people may still feel a nostalgic warmth. When visiting Hawaii, I recommend you try to look for the Japanese essence within the tiny details of language, religion, customs and landscape. It may help you enjoy Hawaii even more deeply.

The language, religion, customs and landscapes of Hawaii are said to have a Japanese essence (Nihon no essensu) to them. This also seems to be connected to a positive travel experience, hinting at the fact that the presence of Japanese elements, both physical and non-physical (ranging from the language to the landscape), is something that is perceived as an added value unique to this destination. As shown by the examples above, users online tend to discuss about a wider range of topics if compared to advertisement. However, the expectations related to the supposedly widespread use of the Japanese language as well as the traces of Japanese culture found around the state are rarely discussed in-depth. Discourse around language and heritage is often treated as functional towards the tourist experience. Discussion around these themes remains on a surface level, rooted in an essentialist repertoire that has been building up for decades. The resulting image of Hawaii is what Yaguchi and Yoshihara (2004) describe as the familiar other. The juxtaposition is between the grey busy city life and easy-going slow lifestyle of beautiful Hawaii. The islands are portrayed (and perceived) as a cozy familiar place. It is America, yet tourists are often greeted by people speaking and looking Japanese. It is a wild archipelago in the exotic southern seas yet any modern amenity is available. Advertisement portrays the islands as a safe place for families. Users’ comments reveal that availability of the Japanese language is both expected before departure and an aspect that improves the quality of the stay once there.


The previous examples are from a corpus too big to be presented in its entirety. Despite the limits of this approach, it appears that although opinions on matters of Japanese language use in Hawaii represent both ends of the spectrum, the tendency to acknowledge a higher than normal concentration of speakers and the appeal of local Japanese heritage seem to be the dominant trend. Despite the shift in tone between the opinion expressed within interactive spaces and more static Web pages that present Hawaii as a resort tailored to the needs of Japanese visitors, they have in common the fact that they have been producing texts with a backdrop of essentialism. It is a form of orientalism that is shaping the way Hawaii is being perceived in Japan, including its commodification. This view has its roots in the first contacts that migrants had with Hawaii more than a century ago and has been evolving and adapting to times ever since.
Hawaii is a multilingual and multicultural society. The way in which Hawaiian society has developed over the years may explain to some degree why discourse in Japan attributes to it certain characteristics. There is an abundance of Japanese speakers in the United States. There are in fact almost half a million people across the States who use Japanese instead of English at home, but the State of Hawaii has one of the highest concentrations. Only California has more (U.S. Census Bureau 2015a). The difference, if compared with other states, is remarkable, hinting at existing factors that may have influenced this concentration of speakers. The Pacific coast has been historically associated with Japanese presence in the United States, and Hawaii too has been the destination for significant migrations originating from Japan. Furthermore, American migration policies in Hawaii had repercussions on migrations to the mainland as the islands acted as a gateway to the American West Coast (Daniels 2006). Eventually, nikkei communities originated around these historical places and this may have contributed to the number of Japanese speakers today. Hawaii is now home to one of the largest and most influential Japanese American communities in the nation. As Tsuda (2012) notes, the Hawaiian community has managed to maintain stronger transnational connections with Japan with respect to other Japanese American communities of the mainland. This might have led to an increased and stable presence, ultimately making Japanese one the most spoken languages on the islands.
The gathering of speakers in a specific area can have further implications. The biggest metropolitan concentration of speakers is in the capital Honolulu, on the island of Oahu (U.S. Census Bureau 2015b). The capital Honolulu is the main touristic hub of the state and the airport is also located there. The Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, named after a prominent politician of Japanese descent, supports mobility both ways across the Pacific and serves as the first point of contact with Hawaii for Japanese tourists arriving on the islands. It is safe to say that the vast majority of Japanese visitors who come to Hawaii do so by first arriving in one of the places in the United States of America with the highest number of Japanese speakers. In turn, such a high number of speakers may lead to residential concentration (Fishman 2013). In these contexts intergenerational transmission of the non-English mother tongue is more likely to happen and may have led to a higher presence of the Japanese language in the area over the years. It is something that, given the high numbers, even Japanese tourists outside of the community may have noticed during their visits.
As tourists, Japanese visitors are likely to be exposed to their language in shops, restaurants and hotels which all abound in Honolulu. This is something that is being noticed by visitors and travel agencies alike and thus, rankings of hotels and places that offer Japanese language services are produced. The presence of services being geared towards a Japanese audience should not come as unexpected, especially for Honolulu. Historically, Japanese real estate investments in the U.S. have been significant, especially during the bubble economy, with Hawaiian hotels being popular among Japanese investors (Hara, Eyster 1990, Tsui 1987). Even before Japanese ownerships started to take over, the need for Japanese speaking personnel to be employed in the tourism industry of Hawaii had been noted since the sixties (Wolbrink 1974). During the initial boom, matters regarding language and culture became immediately evident. After the liberalisation of international travel in Japan in 1964, industry people in Hawaii started immediately to search for bilingual personnel to facilitate communication with visitors from Japan. The trend to try to accommodate the needs of this specific visitor profile has never ceased. The need for Japanese language jobs in Hawaii is a testament to the relevance the language has in the job market of the state. Many choose to focus on the study of the Japanese language to connect with their ancestry, while others do it for its employability in Hawaiian society, tourism, business, and commerce being critical industries for this language (Saft 2019).
Apart from the obvious encounters in shops and hotels, many texts cited the presence of Japanese culture in general. As wide as the term can be, certain elements are often cited such the customs and the physical landscape itself. When Japanese first arrived, they brought with them local customs and traditions from various prefectures (Smith 1962). The Japanese heritage is also reflected in the numerous yearly events held around the state, a prime example being the summer Obon dances. Although events like this often celebrate the roots of people of Japanese descent, they are inclusive in nature and they are capable of attracting thousands of participants from both inside and outside of the community. The physical landscape too is capable of evoking a sense of familiarity to Japanese tourists visiting Hawaii. Originally, plants and architectural elements were imported from Japan to specifically decorate households exteriors, making of certain areas of contemporary Hawaii a ‘transported landscape’ of Japanese origin (Ikagawa 1996). Buddhist temples and Japanese gardens are some examples. Tourists arriving in Hawaii are confronted by one immediately at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. In 1962 a series of gardens were built around the Terminal 2 ticketing lobby and the E Gates. The aim was precisely to ‘display the influence of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Japanese heritage upon island arriving in the State of Hawaii’ (State of Hawaii 2021). Some others eventually became full fledged tourist attractions. The Liliuokalani Gardens by the Sea in Hilo have pagodas, stone lanterns, arched bridges, and ponds just like a traditional garden in Japan would. There is also a replica of the historic Byōdōin temple of Kyoto on the island of Oahu. Built in 1968 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants, the structure is now a well known tourist spot. These examples of psychical spaces and actions associated with the community not only contribute to linguistic and cultural maintenance, but they also serve as a reminder of the popularity that elements derived from Japanese heritage enjoy in Hawaii today.
Language, collective identity, and the values associated to them are critical parts of the community experience. The establishment of cultural institutions, family structures, schools, and neighbourhood associations that characterise the Japanese diaspora in the Americas (Manzenreiter 2017) are present in Hawaii and contribute to the formation and maintenance of transnational networks across the Pacific. From a visitor’s perspective, they may also make of Hawaii a destination that, even if geographically American, still has a relatable Japanese feel to it.


Japan’s fascination with Hawaii has shaped human mobility across the Pacific for more than a century. Japan is now Hawaii’s first foreign touristic partner, so it makes sense for authorities and stakeholders from both countries to take advantage of this. In turn, the online discourse around Hawaii is rooted in an essentialist repertoire which contributes to the commodification of the ‘product Hawaii’. It has been observed that language plays a critical role within this discourse. The idea that Hawaii is a place where it is possible to speak Japanese almost everywhere is a common conception. The diffusion of Japanese heritage in Hawaii is evident, but regardless of its actual reach it is a preoccupation capable of influencing people’s decision to choose Hawaii for their first overseas trip.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a historical suspension of international travels in the region and its effects are yet to be fully understood. However, as travel restrictions are starting to ease, Japanese visitors are reclaiming their spotlight in Hawaii and will probably continue to do so in the future. The cultural and linguistic heritage that binds Japan and Hawaii together should be the object of further scholarly and institutional attention as it offers an insight into understanding the relationship between heritage, language, and mobility in the Asia-Pacific region.


1. https://www.nta.co.jp/kaigai/special/beginners/

2. https://www.nta.co.jp/media/tripa/articles/bi5fi

3. https://www.nta.co.jp/media/tripa/articles/xjDCn

4. https://tripnote.jp/article/first-trip-osusume

5. https://rtrp.jp/articles/119415/

6. https://oshiete.goo.ne.jp/qa/9755549.html

7. https://hawaii.jp/archives/8794


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About the Author

Gianmarco Fiorentini received his BA and MA in Japanese studies from Ca’Foscari University of Venice. His research aims to bridge Japanese studies and sociolinguistics of globalisation to investigate the relationship between language and mobility in the Asia-Pacific.

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